Everyone’s deciding they’re autistic nowadays.


Everyone’s deciding they’re autistic nowadays.

Autistic pride flag

In honour of Autism Acceptance Week, we are sharing this guest blog post from Helen Jefferies, blogger at Autistic Civil Servant.

“When I was a kid hardly anyone was autistic. If a kid misbehaved you didn’t just give it a label. And no-one made a “thing” about being autistic. Nowadays it’s fashionable, right? Everyone’s deciding they’re autistic and jumping on the band wagon. It’s just a fad – they can’t all really be autistic.”

Have you heard people talking like that? I’d love to think the answer was “no” but I fear most autistics will have heard or read that attitude, possibly from friends and family members. Sure there’s a lot more visibility and diagnosis of autism around nowadays than there was in (say) the 1970s, but that doesn’t mean either that there’s an “epidemic” or that people are “jumping on a band wagon”.

Just because you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there

Nowadays there appear to be a lot more people using crutches or mobility aids than I remember there being when I was a child. That may be because as a child I didn’t notice disabled people particularly, or because when I was young people who couldn’t walk well were more likely to be in residential care or trapped in their homes. Seeing people using wheelchairs wasn’t so common or accepted then as it is now – mobility impaired people would be patronised or ignored, with passers by speaking to the person pushing the wheelchair not the person sitting in it. You might remember “Does he take sugar?” – the totemic not-speaking-to-disabled-people question.

So far as I’m aware there hasn’t been an “epidemic” of people losing mobility over the last 30+ years, but in that time people with mobility issues have felt more confident to be out and about and have become more accepted in society. Technology and support equipment has improved and life expectancy has increased, so there are more people who can get out and about and who have survived to live longer lives. Where previously disabled people might have been hidden away, they are now more visible and able to access more of the support that they need.

Autism becoming visible

I’ve given that example about the increasing visibility of people using mobility aids because it helps illustrate what I think is happening with autism as well. It might seem like there is an “epidemic” of autism but actually autism is becoming more visible in society. In former years some autistics would have been in residential care because of their high support needs, and those who could just about function without support would have done their best to fit in, ignoring their own needs. That doesn’t happen (so much) now, and that’s great progress.

As a reminder, the spectrum of autism isn’t a straight line from “mild” to “severe” – it’s a range of traits each of which might be stronger or weaker in a given autistic person as shown in a graphic here. Some of those show up to other people a lot (such as not talking) whereas some can be hidden to a greater or lesser extent (such as finding socialising uncomfortable). The fact that someone has the traits that show doesn’t make their situation severe, and the fact that they have traits they can mostly hide doesn’t mean they should have to.

Getting a “label”

Getting a diagnosis of autism means you have access to support that you didn’t have before. That might mean help at school, reasonable adjustments at work and for job interviews, or (the biggest deal for many autistic adults) feeling liberated not to beat yourself up for not being normal. Knowing that my autistic traits are something I can’t help, rather than a symptom of me being a bad or lazy person, is the biggest benefit I got from my diagnosis. On the surface, not much has changed, but in my head, everything has changed, and for the better. Other autistic adults are also claiming that right to be themselves, including in their own heads, and feeling that they can talk about being autistic rather than having to hide it away. I hope that this breaking down of the stigma of autism is creating a better world for today’s autistic children.

Where will it end?

You might be reading this and thinking it’s all very well to talk about adult autistics who can (mostly) function claiming their autistic identity but won’t that result in more and more people saying they’re autistic until the whole world is? Well, no. At present research suggests that about 1 in every 100 people are autistic. What I think we’re seeing happen is that more and more of those 1% of people are coming to understand themselves better. The other 99% of the world is not autistic (no, we are not “all on the spectrum“) but it is coming to realise that probably every person in the world knows at least one autistic person, whether or not that person is diagnosed yet.

In former years, only the autistic people who had high care needs would have had a diagnosis, and the rest of us would have just had to cope. Nowadays, we have many more resources to help us, and enabling us to access them is good for everyone. Only about 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of work, but making reasonable adjustments available and building understanding should increase that percentage which will be good for everyone.

It’s good if autistics know they’re autistic and can be open

Having a diagnosis of autism shouldn’t be a bad thing – if you have an autistic brain then having a diagnosis helps you manage that brain. Society shouldn’t need us to hide or minimise our disability to be valid as people, nor pressure us to “act normal” if we can. Society definitely shouldn’t be dividing autistic people into two categories, one of which should just stop complaining and fake normal like everyone else while the other is consigned to institutional care.

So yes, there do seem to be a lot more autistic people around than there were 30 years ago, but that’s not because people are “catching” autism or deciding to be autistic because it’s “fashionable”. A lot of those people are becoming able to be their real selves for the first time, and that should be something everyone can celebrate.

Share this page: